A Resurvey of Cymaron Castle
Back in the heat of the summer of 1991 Peter Halliwell, Bob Fletcher and I revisited the castle of Cymaron set between Llanbister and Llangunllo in old Radnorshire. The plan reproduced here is the result of our investigations together with some pertinent comments. The history of the site is covered briefly in my books, A Political History of Wales and Radnorshire Castles, while the history of the owning families of Mortimer and Elystan Glodrydd are discussed in The Mortimers of Wigmore and A Political History of Abbey Cwmhir.
In brief it seems likely that the castle was founded during the Mortimer conquest of the cantref of Maelienydd in 1093. The Mortimers were exiled during the reign of King Henry I (1100-35) and the castle passed to the powerful royal confident, Pain Fitz John. During 1134 the Welsh revolted and ‘Cans’ castle was one the fortresses of Fitz John that was destroyed. This was probably Cymaron. In 1144 Hugh Fitz Ralph Mortimer ‘repaired Cymaron castle and a second time subjugated Maelienydd’. Within ten years the castle was retaken by the Welsh and remained in the hands of the local princes for the next 25 years. On 22 September 1179 Roger, the son of Hugh Mortimer, murdered the castle’s lord, Prince Cadwallon ap Madog. Immediately King Henry II seized the castle due to the great debts Cadwallon owed the Crown. He also arrested Roger Mortimer and imprisoned him for two years. In 1182 Cadwallon’s sons seized back the castle much to the annoyance of the king. In 1195 King Richard I gave Roger Mortimer an army to reconquer Maelienydd as well as £20 towards refortifying Cymaron castle. Roger Mortimer finally died in 1214 and the next year Prince Llywelyn the Great swept through Maelienydd destroying ‘Kamhawn’ castle once more. This appears to have marked the end of the castle’s military history, although the Mortimers later built a court house here before 1297, though whether this was a defensive structure or not is open to question. Cymaron manor records still exist for the years 1356 to 1360.
Strategically Cymaron castle lies on the River Aran which gives the fortress its name. It would also appear to have been the caput, or in Welsh the llys, of Rhiwallt commote. As such it was a very important castle. The other fortresses of twelfth century Maelienydd were Dinieithon and Buddugre castles within commotes of the same name. It is also possible that Kerry castle was the fortress of Ceri and Clun of Wynogion, though their exact status is debatable.
Tactically the castle is badly sited. It is set in the junction of the River Aran (A) and a small stream. It probably commands an ancient crossing of the river, but the site is badly overlooked by high ground to the south and west. A motte, either as a lookout or an outpost - Colwyn castle in Elfael has similar supporting mottes - stands on the high ground to the south-east of the castle and river. A further mound which appears to be natural lies up the slope from the castle motte to the south-west. If both these ‘mottes’ were fortified it would have somewhat alleviated the bad positioning of the castle.
The castle consists of an irregular deeply ditched motte (M) still protected by deep ditches (MD) and ramparts (R). A bailey (B) with massive ramparts and ditches (BD) lies to the east and a further less well defended bailey (O) beyond that.
Like most early castles the heart of the fortress, the keep or donjon, lay on the ‘motte’ or artificial defensive mound (M). At Cymaron the motte would appear to be totally natural. The motte top was found to be irregular with outcrops of stone breaking through the surface at several points. This would suggest that the entire structure was a natural stone outcrop that had been scarped into a defensive feature. It was also noted that there was no trace of any stone structure built upon it, although it is eminently possible that the entire area had been 'stripped' of any masonry considering the site’s long history after its military phase. The motte (M) itself is an irregular shape as can be seen on the accompanying plan. Its eastern side is protected by the steep scarp down to the river (A), but the other three sides are covered by a powerful ditch (MD). To the north and west there is also a powerful rampart (R) beyond the ditch. To the south this rampart appears to have been strengthened and later still modified, perhaps by quarrying operations of some kind. Much of this has now been largely destroyed or filled in, making the site appear even more vulnerable to the high ground than it might once have been.
North of the motte (M), the inner ward (B) has a fine rampart on the exposed sides, but a much reduced ‘bank’ to the north and east. Entrance appears to have been gained at the present break in the rampart to the north where a farm track currently enters the ward. This would appear to lie within the old bailey ditch and so cannot mark the original line of entrance. A further tractor track coming up the outer bailey (O) from a ford over the river appears to be a modern addition, but it may be on the site of the original entrance. The break through the scarp of the outer ward rampart is certainly recent, and the archaeology on either side shows no sign of a curtain wall. Indeed there is no certain trace of any masonry on the site, though there is much uncut rubble in the ditch between the bailey (B) and the motte (M). A collapse of the rampart at the NW angle of the site also shows that there was no masonry set on or in advance of the bank.
The ditch between this rampart and the 'motte' was next investigated, and it was suggested that this may have been a quarry or possibly that later buildings had disfigured the site. Finally the outer ward (O) was examined and an otherwise unrecorded ditch (BD) was found between the inner (B) and outer (O) baileys on the north-eastern side. As has been suggested above, the western half of this ditch may have been filled in by the modern entrance track and a barn. This ditch continued around the eastern river side of the bailey (B) up the motte ditch (MD). Its counterscarp also interlocked perfectly with the outer ward defences.
In the eastern half of the inner bailey are two apparently fairly modern buildings, built of the local rubble, but we could find no trace of any courthouse which once stood at the site.
The Castles and History of Radnorshire (ISBN 1-899376-82-8) looks in great detail at both Cymaron and its sister castle at Dinieithon. This book consists of 309 pages of A4 and examines in greater detail the history and castles of Radnorshire and Rhwng Gwy a Hafren. Starting in the early eleventh century the book covers the age of the castles up to the Civil War of 1642-46. Each castle description is buttressed by numerous photographs and plans of the earthworks and remains where they survive. A new look is also taken at the battlefield of Pilleth and the evidence for the course of the battle is scrutinised. The book also contains genealogical family trees of the major historical Radnorshire families and a full index.
Available for £39.95.
For more information concerning the Mortimer campaigns in Maelienydd buy Wigmore Castle Tourist Guide through the PayPal basket below.
Paul Martin Remfry